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By Frank Thomas Croisdale

First and foremost, let me say to you the words that you need to hear the most: I'm sorry.

I'm sorry that a U.S. Customs agent at the Rainbow Bridge beat you so horrifically on the night of July 21. I'm sorry that the beating happened in a city, Niagara Falls, that I love from the deepest depths of my heart. And, most of all, I'm sorry that the travesty that befell you has caused you to lose respect for America as a whole.

There is healing that needs to happen; let it begin with me.

In America, we believe that a person is innocent until proven guilty. The agent that you say beat you, Robert Rhodes, has claimed his innocence. While I will not deny Mr. Rhodes his assumption of innocence, nor his right to a fair trial, I will go so far as to believe your contention that you were attacked with much force and aggression.

How could anyone who has seen the photos of you with eyes swollen shut and bruises and cuts all over your face believe otherwise?

Mr. Rhodes and you agree that the whole incident started when a male pedestrian cleared Customs before an officer discovered several pounds of marijuana on his person. Evidently, Rhodes then mistook you and two other women for "mules," people who help in the transport of drugs over an international border.

It is at this point that your story and that of Mr. Rhodes enter into another woods altogether.

"Officer Rhodes tried to detain her, at which point she began kicking and scratching him," Rhodes attorney, Steven M. Cohen, said recently. "After getting kicked and scratched a few more times, he did what his protocol requires. He didn't pull out his firearm. He pulled out his pepper spray."

According to the "People's Daily Online," you have a different memory of what happened.

"That policeman, with one hand, beckoned me to go over there, while he sprayed me with liquid pepper with another hand. My eyes, hair, face and neck were sprayed successively, and then I fell to the ground, and was surrounded by at least three policemen, they kicked me on the face and body with their leather shoes. My eyes were so swollen that I simply couldn't open them, and one of my teeth was broken, my skin was in great pain, I thought I was dying at that time, so how could I attack the police?"

I'm reminded of an expression favored by my grandfather. "There are three sides to every story. Yours, mine, and the cold, hard truth."

The cold, hard truth about what happened on the night of July 21 is that it has caused you, and your nation, to lose faith in the goodness and integrity of not only the people of Niagara Falls, but of the citizens of America as a whole.

This is what the online version of "China Daily" had to say in the aftermath of your ordeal:

"The world knows the U.S. propensity for pointing fingers at others in human rights protections. But who is the real threat after all?

"Under the banner of anti-terrorism, the United States has given its army free rein to arrest or imprison any suspected terrorists or those suspected of having connections to terrorists.

"Its condemnation-provoking actions range from its invasion of Iraq without any convincing excuse to the abuse of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison.

The logic is reminiscent and representative of U.S. arrogance on the world stage.

"The Americans can kill anyone they think is a potential threat to their precious lives, or beat an innocent woman half to death on the flimsiest of excuses.

"Taking advantage of the prevailing sense of fear they have cultivated at home, the U.S. security apparatus has become even more bellicose in law enforcement."

I have to tell you that it was quite a shock to see an event that transpired on the shores of the Niagara River compared so directly with the abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison. I am sure that I speak for most Americans when I say that we like to think of ourselves as the good guys, the protectors and the nurturers, not people to be despised and vilified.

I must admit the cut was deep when you said that "America is the most barbaric of all the countries I've visited."

This might be a good time to tell you, Zhao, that aside from writing for this newspaper, I make my living in the tourism industry in Niagara Falls. There are a few people connected with this great city that I'd like you to hear about.

Gary Carella is a firefighter in Niagara Falls. In March of 2003, he risked his own life to save that of a man who had second thoughts about committing suicide by going over Niagara Falls. The man was standing mere yards from the mighty precipice when a harnessed Gary, along with the help of other police and fire personnel, was able to grab hold of him before they were both pulled to safety on the shore.

Just this past month, Gary and his mates repeated nearly the exact same rescue of a woman in an almost identical predicament.

You might think that Gary expected some sort of special recognition for his efforts, but he has no taste for the spotlight. He simply believes that it was another day at the job and that saving the lives of strangers is reward enough, in and of itself.

Kevin Cottrell is another citizen of my community that I'd like you to meet. Kevin gives tours to area school kids on the history of the Underground Railroad in Western New York. Kevin is an African-American man who connects with kids of all races and backgrounds. He believes that education is the key that unlocks most doors facing our youth. He gives of himself in the pursuit of erasing ignorance and empowering young people with the strength that is only found through enlightenment.

The third person that I'd like you to meet from Niagara Falls is best known by his nickname, the Candyman. The Candyman is a tour driver in Niagara Falls and, a few summers ago, he went out of his way to make a bride's dreams come true.

You see, a young couple was on one of the Candyman's illumination tours of Niagara Falls when they confided in him that they were supposed to have been married that afternoon. The minister had gotten lost trying to find them and they feared they would have to return home without tying the knot.

That's when the Candyman took matters into his own hands.

He called the justice of the peace and asked him what he was doing at 10:30 p.m. that evening. He asked him if he'd be willing to meet him on Goat Island above the falls to perform a moonlight ceremony. Then he asked the other tourists on his bus if they'd be willing to be witnesses for the ceremony.

The result was that the bride got the wedding she'd always dreamed of and a group of tourists took home a sweet memory to savor forever.

That is what the people of Niagara Falls are really all about.

I'd like to make a public offer to you, Zhao.

I invite you to return for a visit to Niagara Falls and I will pay for your hotel and sightseeing tour. I'll also take you out to dinner at one of Niagara's best restaurants and introduce you to Gary, Kevin and the Candyman.

You have asked the world to believe your words concerning the character of one person residing and employed in Niagara Falls.

I'm asking you to believe mine on all the rest.

Frank Thomas Croisdale is a Contributing Editor at the Niagara Falls Reporter. You can write him at NFReporter@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Aug. 3 2004